Spirit or Flesh: How do you know?

mountainmeditation.jpegIn my recent blog on legalism (scroll down to see it) Sherri asked, “How do you know if you’re walking in the flesh or the Spirit?” (in essence).

I’d like to tackle that question today.

The wounderful* fundamentalist church in which I was reared placed too much focus on motives (*not a misspelling). “Check your motives. Check your heart. Have a clean heart.”

inquisition.jpegMy Inner Inquisitor had a field day with that. My motives scarcely measured up to the standard of purity I thought Jesus required. When I looked within, I saw a simmering stew of jumbled desires and mixed motives. Even when I was at my best and even when I was obeying God, my motives remained impure. This, I thought, negated any value my good works and my life might have had–only compounding my sense of spiritual worthlessness. But that’s not all it did.

It produced a spirituality of morbid introspection. Not a healthy thing. The question of motives and the doubts over whether I am walking in the Spirit or not, paralyzed me.

angel.jpegI am now convinced that motives are not that big of an issue.

I advocate a policy of benign superficiality when it comes to motives. Really. I’m not kidding. The more we dig into our own motives and the more we inspect our

[Pause: my five year old son just asked, “Dad, do numbers just keep on going?” Sheer genius, wouldn’t you agree? I answered yes. He replied, “Wow. That’s a lot.”]

own spirits the more self-absorbed and either self-justifying or self-denigrating we become.

guilty.jpegYes, I know that David and others looked within. So do I. Contemplation/meditation is a bona fide part of the spiritual life. It is not ultimately a voyage into inner space, but a voyage into God’s heart through the Scriptures. Self-examination plays a part, but only a bit part–and only for a cameo appearance.

You cannot, in the short term, control, your motives. You can control your choices. You can, in the long term, modify your motives through Scripture and prayer. That is where our focus should be. Until our motives catch up, we should obey God anyway, regardless of motives.

David’s introspection lasted about five seconds. Watch how fast he moves from looking within to looking to God.

“Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; For I shall yet praise Him, The help of my countenance and my God.” Psalms 43:5, NKJV.

If I ask God to fill me with his Spirit, I take him at his word that he does. What if my motives are impure? If I’m aware of the impurity, I confess it to God as a sin.

fantastic-voyage.jpegIf I’m not aware of impure motives, I don’t launch an inner hunting expedition for unknown sins. Doesn’t the Holy Spirit know how to bring to mind the sins he wants you to confess? Confess your known sins in a humble attitude, and bring them to the Cross. Leave them there. Ask God to fill you. Move on. Let your motives catch up later.

In the words of an old Scottish preacher, Robert Murray McCheyne, FOR EVERY LOOK AT SELF, TAKE TEN LOOKS AT CHRIST.


8 thoughts on “Spirit or Flesh: How do you know?

  1. “Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays…who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he…took a real interest in what you said to him…He will not be thinking about humility: he wil not be thinking about himself at all.”

    I always liked this (from Mere Christianity), and it seems to embody what you are getting at,

    PS congrats on the book deal!

  2. We must have been in the same “wounderful” church! With all the “confession” going on every night before I went to sleep, it was a wonder I ever slept for fear of forgetting some of the “sins” I must confess to clean up my soul enough for heaven, if perchance I might die that night. Remember, the sins you didn’t even know you had committed, we listed under the “unknown” to make sure one covered all the bases?

    No wonder the Word of Grace is so refreshing to me!! I believe I did figure this one out by myself pretty long ago, it’s just SO nice to have someone else affirm it to me!! Thanks!

  3. I’ve always judged weather i’m living in the spirt or in the flesh (and knowing the difference between the two), is by the measure of ‘life and peace’ (Rom. 8:5-7) i have flowing like a river through me

  4. This is Joe’s friend from NPU. Thanks again for sharing your home, your family, your thoughts and so much of your food with me. I have heard God’s Grace described in a complimentary fashion as “the hospitality of God,” and you all were hospitality incarnate. In the flesh.

    Apropos of this topic, Merdold Westphal, who teaches at Fordham University wrote a book called “Suspicion and Faith” in which he examines the three most effective influential critiques of Christianity in the last 150 years: Freud’s, Marx’ and Nietzsche’s. He says that these critiques (which he calls a “hermeneutic of suspicion”) are unique in that they challenge not the factual, propositional claims of Christianity, but that they challenge the motives behind religious faith, ritual and morality.

    Westphal takes an interesting position on all of this, contending that Christians might be well served to acknowledge these critiques in a spirit of Lenten repentance. He hopes to appropriate their arguments, while rejecting their criticisms. His answer, in basic terms, is not to abandon Christianity because our motives are flawed, mixed or down-right repugnant, but rather fix our motives through repentance. We ought not abandon Christianity because we’re doing it poorly; we ought to strive to do it well. The Lewis quote above may be a helpful guide in this endeavor, yes?


  5. Ah, Bill, so insightful. No wonder you’re writing books! Congrats.

    My favorite quote about humility is from Golda Meier. She said, “Don’t be humble. You’re not that great.”

    Thank you for sending so many people to my website. Soon as I can get my computer guru (aka son-in-law) cornered, he’s going to add a link to your website.

    Grace and peace to you and your readers.

  6. Bill,

    Thanks so much for these awesome words. I can definitely relate to your upbringing. Mine was much the same.

    I am always amazed at God’s timing. I get together with a group of 6-8 guys from my church every Wed. We are starting some character studies of Men from the Old Testament and last night was Sampson. Samson was a man of weakness. He had a short temper, he had uncontrolled anger, he bedded all the “bad girls” of the Philistines; but in it all, GOD used him to save GOD’s people from the Philistines. Samson is listed in Hebrews 11:32 and it is said of him in Hebrews 11:39 that he was “commended for [his] faith”. GOD will accomplish GOD’s will through us, regardless of our motives!

    Thanks again, Bill. With your permission, I’d like to pass this article on to my group and post it on my blog, as well.


  7. Bill, Great blog!

    I once heard a devotional from a very well known and respected worship leader regarding our attitude as worshippers. His message was that we were to exhibit a broken and contrite heart. He cited Ps.51:17…The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (This was probably the life verse of a leader at the “wounderful” church, right?)

    I talked to this person afterward. I suggested that contrition, repentence and brokeness are not to be the status quo for the Christian. He was taken aback. I continued: While God does not de”despise” such a state in us, his goal, and ours, is restoration and joy! See verse 12 in the same Psalm: Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

    We go through brokenness, and we find joy. Hmm. Many folks of a mystical bent (like my worship leader friend) seem to emphasize the process over the goal, and tend to dwell in the brokenness. They do that long enough to forget that there’s joy at the end of that road. And the church may tend to collect it’s mystics in the ranks of it’s worship leaders. (Just a casual observation, just thinking out loud…).

    Humility is a way of life that is the result spiritual maturity. It’s who I am, more that what I do. If I’m not engaged in spritual disciplines, I would suspect that any humility I display is not of the Spirit. Brokenness/contrition a different thing. It is an episode with a purpose. If I get stuck there, I’m missing the point. I do need to do enough soul searching to keep my heart tender toward God, to keep my conscience clean, and to propel my spiritual maturation. But too much soul searching…well go to the CS Lewis quote in Steve’s post…who should I be thinking about? (Wonderful quote, Steve!)

    Jonathon H: I’m very sure that I’d agree with you if I understood what you said : – ) Kidding!

    Bob G.

    ps: Bill…whaddya mean…numbers just keep on going!?!?!? I suppose the alphabet just keeps on going, too! Don’t mess with your kid’s head like that!
    pps: Bill…seriously…what did Jonathan mean and do I agree with him?

  8. Bill,
    P. Stanhope once said, “Modesty is the only sure bait, when you angle for praise.” The discussion of humility, or how humble we should be, implies a more profound truth, and that is love. Without (agape) love, the concept of humility is vain (sort of the existential concept of “the self-licking ice-cream cone”).
    When you love your neighbor as yourself, you place that person’s interest on a level of your own (Philippians 2:3). During the Old Testament era, loving your neighbor as yourself was exemplified in the Ten Commandments (not bearing false witness against your neighbor; not coveting your neighbor’s possessions; etc, which was complemented by your love of Yahweh). In fact, if your neighbor’s animal fell in a well, saving that animal was a response to loving your neighbor, even if the event occurred during the Sabbath (see Deut 22:3, which allows for “working” on the Sabbath to save the animal in order to act in love on behalf of your neighbor). Jesus had problems with the Pharisees because of this conundrum of love-and-the-Law (e.g., healing on the Sabbath, which was “saving” people [and not animals, for which the Law allowed]).
    Humility is both an attitude (Phil 2:5) and lifestyle (1 Cor 13).
    How do you know the difference between the power of the flesh and Spirit? The first indicator is by the fruits (Gal 5:19ff).
    “For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17).
    I do not tend to quote secularists often, but V.V. Rozinov put it bluntly when he said, “We do not live in accordance with our mode of thinking, but we think in accordance with our mode of loving.”

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